On Monday, I reported on LEAP Academy University Charter School's $151,000 fine it paid to Aramark for breach of contract in transferring school executive chef Michele Pastorello. Here is the breakdown of how the story has developed.
On Feb. 18, I broke the story of LEAP Academy University Charter School forcing a $24,000 raise for executive chef Michele Pastorello when it switched food service management companies. Not only is his $95,000 salary way more than what such a position usually pays but also Pastorello's relationship to school board chair Gloria Bonilla-Santiago raised some eyebrows.
"If the board put in place a bidding requirement in which the only way a bid is accepted is for you to hire someone who could be considered part of immediate family, [this] raises some very serious concerns under the state ethics code," said David Sciarra, executive director of the New Jersey Education Law Center, which advocates for students in poor districts, such as Camden. He said that a "committed relationship" or live-in boyfriend could be considered immediate family under the ethics code. (Read more HERE.)
The day after my story ran, the LEAP Board of Trustees was having its regular meeting. There, some school parents came out in support of Bonilla-Santiago and the school's positive influence on their children and families.
Cheryl Fleet-Hopkins, told of the difficulty of educating black males in Camden and said that because of Bonilla-Santiago's vision, her grandchildren have been able to stay on the straight path. Her daughter Rachema White, a single mother, has benefited from parenting classes and other support from LEAP, she said.
"It's a family here," Fleet-Hopkins said later in an interview. "This is the best thing that ever happened to Camden."
The school's academics and social work was not being questioned, I told them. The article questions the use of tax-payer money to increase the salary of the school's chef by $24,000 in one year.
His raise, as well as the fee paid to the previous management company, Aramark, now are under review by the school's board of trustees. Those developments led to my third and fourth stories.
By the end of the week, LEAP's board had decided to investigate the matter. (We are still waiting for its findings and decision.) This story also revealed that: For the 2011-12 school year, LEAP had to cover a $272,241 loss in its food-service fund with state money it receives for general operations. (Read more HERE.)
The Inquirer's editorial board also jumped on the case by questioning if Pastorello's relationship with Bonilla-Santiago was the cause of the hefty raise. It also asked parents to demand more from its school.
"One can't help but wonder whether the chef would be so highly paid if the woman he is in a "committed relationship" with weren't LEAP Academy founder and chairwoman Gloria Bonilla-Santiago. LEAP's new food-service contract with Metz Culinary Management required."
"In their minds, it seems, a school that offers so much more for children than a regular Camden public school can do no wrong. It's time for parents of charter children to be more discerning and demanding." (Read the full editorial HERE.)
LEAP has put out various statements defending its food service contract and academics. However, there has not been any specific justification for a $24,000 raise. Here is part of LEAP's statement that didn't make it into my most recent article:
"Food service plays a critical role at LEAP Academy – mostly because studies say nutrition leads to healthy bodies and, ultimately, creative and eager minds.
Academic success is a priority at LEAP. We are proud of our record of 100 percent high school graduation and 100 percent college placement since 2005.
There is an indisputable link between providing quality food and students performing strong academically.
LEAP Academy provides students with three nutritious meals a day – breakfast, lunch and snack. Important to note: LEAP students come from low-income backgrounds, where families struggle to put food on the table, let alone pay much attention to nutrition. For many of those students, this can be their only quality meals of the day.
LEAP feels an obligation to provide students with meals that are BETTER than most meals that students receive at home. "
On Monday, I reported that including Michele Pastorello's new $95,000 salary, LEAP has spent nearly $250,000 this school year to keep him employed as executive chef. The position typically pays about $40,000, according to industry experts.
It wasn't until the 2012-13 school year began that LEAP learned it had "overlooked a contractual responsibility" to pay compensation for transferring Pastorello to the new vendor, Metz Culinary Management, LEAP spokesman Adam Dvorin said in a statement.
While the state Department of Education has not announced any investigation into LEAP's food service bid or use of funds, a department spokeswoman has said the food service contract bid will be part of the state's annual review.